Online therapy firm teams up with Michael Phelps to break the stigma of mental illness

The Olympic gold medalist swimmer is the new face of Talkspace, a startup that makes therapy affordable and accessible to millions of people.

On the surface, Michael Phelps had the kind of life we could only dream of. As the most decorated swimmer in history, the Baltimore native had 28 Olympic medals to his name before he even turned 30. He'd broken basically every world record in swimming ever recorded, and in four Olympic games, he reigned as the most successful athlete to compete.

Michael Phelps swims for joint silver in the Men's 100m Butterfly Final on Day 7 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. Michael Phelps swims for joint silver in the Men's 100m Butterfly Final on Day 7 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. (Photo: Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)

But the side of Phelps most people never saw – and one he had tried mightily to conceal – was his struggle with mental illness. In January, the 32-year-old revealed that he suffered from both ADHD and depression, and that after the 2012 Olympics, he actually contemplated suicide.

"Throughout my career, I struggled with depression and anxiety at various times, and I found it so difficult to get the help I needed," said Phelps.

It wasn't an instant fix, but over time, therapy began to help. "As I started opening up and talking about my issues, I felt strength, not vulnerability," he said. That's when he transitioned from survivor to advocate.

The recent suicides of fashion designer Kate Spade and TV host Anthony Bourdain have further brought issues surrounding depression into the national discussion. Phelps, for his part, is one of a growing number of celebrities using their platform to open up about mental illness and, in turn, encourage others to do so.

Michael Phelps, wife Nicole Johnson and their son Boomer arrive to the 2016 Golden Goggles Awards in New York City. Michael Phelps, wife Nicole Johnson and their son Boomer arrive to the 2016 Golden Goggles Awards in New York City. (Photo: Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

"I want to help others who may be dealing with the same mental health challenges I have experienced and show them that help is so much easier to access now, and more affordable," he said.

And now, Phelps is a spokesperson for Talkspace, an online therapy site that helps fight the stigma surrounding mental health and the forces that keep people from trying therapy. The startup, founded by a pair of Israeli entrepreneurs and based in New York, already counts more than a million people as users. The site makes hundreds of professional therapists and counselors available at the touch of a button.

"When I discovered I could speak with a therapist by text, web, or video – wherever I might be – it was an amazing feeling of empowerment," Phelps said of Talkspace.

The startup's founders, the husband and wife team of Oren and Roni Frank, launched the platform after they saw the success they had following couples therapy. Roni – who studied computer science in Israel and psychoanalysis in the U.S. – serves as the company's head of clinical services.

Michael Kuznetsov, Talkspace's VP of Marketing, thinks Phelps' involvement in the company is a natural fit. "All too often, we forget that mental illness does not discriminate, and that you can be affected no matter your background, occupation, or level of success," Kuznetsov said. "Michael's open and honest story makes it clear that we can all benefit from therapy, no matter who we are."

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